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From the Bookshelf: Habits of the Creative Mind

Habits of the Creative MindHabits of the Creative Mind (HCM) is written to be used as a college textbook, however it is not a typical college-level writing textbook by any stretch of the imagination and can (and should) be used by a wider audience.

This new book (published in 2016) is based on five core principles: (1) writing is a technology for thinking thoughts that are new to the writer; (2) the habits of mind that support good writing are teachable and learnable; (3) creativity takes practice, lots and lots of practice; (4) the essay is the ideal form for practicing the habits of the creative mind; and (5) writing is a way of paying attention. It is organized by essays/short readings and writing activities under specific themes relevant to the writing life. More specifically, each essay or short reading is followed by several “practice sessions” with exercises and recommendations for further exploration. Instead of focusing on rhetorical or mechanical principles, the text focuses on building the types of thinking skills that characterize writers which the authors perceive as including, but not limited to, observation, curiosity, openness, creativity, flexibility, responsibility, persistence, composition (in the sense of how things appear together), metacognition, and engagement.

This book made its way onto my bookshelf earlier this year when the publisher (Bedford/St. Martin’s) sent a box of evaluation copies of various English books to my department. The title caught my eye, and I snagged it from the stack along with a few other books and promptly forgot about it entirely until about two weeks ago. As I looked over and reviewed titles to shift a few books around on my bookcase to make room for new arrivals, this book again caught my eye.

I started reading it as I stood and didn’t stop until I was about a quarter of the way in.

The materials and exercises presented in HCM break from convention and encourage creative thinking brain public domain photohighly-divergent thinking. The text encourages readers to be curious about both the materials they read as well as the world around them. The assignments include non-writing tasks like picture drawing, listening to music, podcasts, visual mapping, photography, as well as writing assignments such as keeping a writer’s notebook with observations on your surroundings, overheard conversations, and so on; conducting an interview for a biography profile; and tracking/recording questions you encounter when reading. The text also emphasizes synthesis: seeking and finding connections between the real world, your thoughts and reflections, and the essays/books/articles you read.

Pro Contra Public Domain PhotoAt the same time, the book’s strength in being nonconformist is also its weakness as there is a lack of explanation and examples in the text. For more advanced readers and writers this will not present an issue, but for readers and writers new to the craft, it may be challenging. While the authors’ aim is to encourage readers to break away from formulaic, recipe-like writing, many readers and writers can benefit from some of the more traditional (and possibly formulaic) techniques to help them master the basics. As such, I think for those readers this book is best used in conjunction with another text or websites that will help readers see how to go about implementing the excellent good exercises offered by the authors.

Overall, I think this book is simply awesome. I am excited to try the activities and “practice sessions” as I restart my own Awesomewriting practice. Moreover, the essays and readings are manageable and engaging, and I find myself going back to the book as I contemplate the different topics and styles of writing. I recommend this book for writers, writing students, and writing teachers looking to build their abilities and writing repertoire.

February Giveaway Winner!

2016 (1)Congratulations to the winner of my February Giveaway, writer S.K. Lamont!  S.K. will receive a new copy of Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling thriller, Child 44 as well as a DVD copy of the movie, which was released in 2015.

Way to go, S.K.!

Didn’t win? Don’t worry – March’s Giveaway is just around the corner!

GIVEAWAY! Book & DVD combo – Child 44

In honor of Leap Year, I’m hosting a GIVEAWAY with a nod to books that have made the leap (see what I did there?) from the page to the screen!

You can enter at the bottom of my post OR click here to enter now!

filmThere are hundreds of books that have been turned into movies (for an absolutely non-comprehensive, but fun list, check out this site).  Lately, it seems like I can’t read a book without it being turned into a film for the silver screen.

So, how to choose one for my giveaway?

I thought about this while I should have been focusing on an assignment for work (bad cog!). My mind kept dividing the books and movies into two categories: movies that succeeded in bringing the heart of the book to the screen, and movies that did not.  And for me, very few movies land in the first category.

I’m probably too hard on the movie industry, Thumbs_downbut I’m very rarely pleased with a movie after I’ve read the book (not that’s not me to the right – that’s a photo from the public domain … but it sums up my feelings nicely!). Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect a verbatim depiction of the book. I understand what “adaptation” means. But I like for the movie-to-screen transition to mirror language translations in fiction and poetry – to capture the spirit of that on which it is based, to stay true to the story (with story being defined as the the inner “truth” of the work).

Maybe I expect too much…

The more I thought about (when I was supposed to be working), the more I realized there is a third category: movies that don’t succeed as translations of the book, but are still great movies.

For the giveaway, I was torn about which category to choose for the book/movie duo. And then it hit me – don’t choose. Or rather, choose based on the book and then watch the movie and chime in at the end of the giveaway (hopefully alongside the winner!). In other words, surprise myself.

So that’s what I did.

child 44 bookTHE GIVEAWAYChild 44 by Tom Rob Smith was published in 2011 and the movie release occurred last year (2015). I first read the book in December 2011 for a book club discussion. I was pleasantly surprised. While the book itself is in the genre of popular thriller, there was enough “meat” to the story – plenty of history, social commentary, thematic development – that our normally picky group all agreed that the book was enjoyable, stimulating, and well written. Trust me, this is high praise from this group. We went on to read everything else written by Smith.

Here is a synopsis from the author’s website:

In a country ruled by fear, no one is innocent.

Stalin’s Soviet Union is an official paradise, where citizens live free from crime and fear only one thing: the all-powerful state. Defending this system is idealistic security officer Leo Demidov, a war hero who believes in the iron fist of the law. But when a murderer starts to kill at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled. Now, with only his wife at his side, Leo must fight to uncover shocking truths about a killer — and a country — where “crime” doesn’t exist.

I have not seen the movie (yet), so I do not know if it lives up to child 44 dvdthe spirit of the book. My hope is that the winner of the giveaway will share his or her opinion! And, of course, I will chime in after sending the winner his or her package.

The package includes a copy of BOTH the DVD and the paperback of Child 44. Heck, I might even throw in a bag of microwave popcorn! 😉 

By now, you’re asking, What do I have to do to enter?

It’s simple – to enter, follow the link below. You can earn entries by commenting on this post, vising my Facebook page, checking me out on Google+, following me on Twitter … AND you can an additional TWO entries – daily! – by Tweeting about this giveaway!

Simply follow the link below to enter! (I’m trying a new way to tally entries, hence the link. Thanks for playing along!)

GIVEAWAY! Child 44 Book & DVD

To win, you must:

  • Be over the age of 18.
  • Have a US mailing address.
  • Enter from 2/1/2016 until 11:59pm Eastern 2/12/2016

That’s it! Easy as pie! And remember – the more you share, the more entries you receive. I’ll announce the winner on Saturday 2/13! Good luck!


From the Bookshelf: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

**Don’t forget to enter my Giveaway for your chance to win a copy of What If? Writing Exercises. Ends 11/24!**

curious incident haddonI would love to give you a hot-off-the-presses book review, but instead I can only write about books I read in my actual life (I’m saving the made-up version for my next book).  And in my life, I’m often always behind.  This book review is no exception.  But stick with me. Pretty please with sugar and cherry on top!  This weekend, I re-read a book I’ve read three times before.  A book that has been out for years.  My daughter was assigned the book in her English class and asked me a question as she was preparing to write a response so to refresh my memory, I glanced at the first page … and didn’t look up again until I reached the end.

And here’s why: It’s amazing.

The book? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Which I guess is timely in some ways because Haddon has a short story this week (miracle that I’m not behind on something) in The New Yorker (check it out here). The short version is that Curious tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, who discovers the slain body of his neighbor’s poodle and sets out to uncover the murderer.  But it is so much more.  Through this book, we are called to question our perceptions about love, growing up, and the human mind.

It’s November.  I’m just starting Week Two of NaNoWriMo and NovPAD.  So this time when I read the book, I kept my writer’s hat firmly in place and paid special attention to Haddon’s writing tools and techniques.

One of the best features of Curious is, in my humble opinion, the voice.  In fact, it is so good let’s write that again but this time with capitals and a fancy font – The Voice.  Christopher is highly logical, excessively literal, and extremely detached, which can be at times hilarious and at times devastating. His voice is so real, so genuine that I felt like I was there in the book with him as the story unfolded. Part of this success comes from Haddon’s use of first-person POV, which allows us to see the events of the novel through the eyes of the narrator and places us deep inside Christopher’s mind, forcing us to see the world in his very limited way.  Haddon helps us understand Christopher by having him give us his opinions on the status quo.  Looking at things I take for granted through Christopher’s eyes caused me to question some of my assumptions about the world and the so-called “normal” way of thinking.

Amazingly, Christopher is a phenomenal narrator despite is inability to relate emotionally to others.  We still get our emotional fix, however, because Christopher is such a stickler for description (the book is full of vivid sensory imagery) and the facts.  We are called to read between the lines, and it is easy to fill in the emotional void based on how others react to Christopher and his actions.  Reading the book, I felt both wildly frustrated with and crazy mama-bear protective of Christopher as he tried to make his way in the world.

Haddon also manages to add depth and personality to secondary characters in creative ways.  For example, readers learn about Christopher’s mother from her letters.  Through the explanations she gives, the spelling errors she makes, even the way she recounts her job, we learn what makes her unique, some of her background, and how she will likely react to events in the story before she ever steps into a scene.

Lastly, the book is chock full of literary themes.  One major theme in the book – and one that is not unexpected with a teenager as the central character – is the struggle for independence.  Yawn. I know, it sounds trite. But in Curious, Haddon takes this common theme and gives it to us with a twist. Instead of the usual teen bucking the rules of mom & dad or society, Christopher is struggling to gain independence from his mental constraints.  He is a character who, because of a mental health disorder, can never be fully independent. On some level, he recognizes this. And yet he struggles against his destiny. Throughout the book, he takes step after step in a direction of his own choosing.  Starting with the search for dog murderer (against his father’s command to the contrary), through a solitary trip to London (challenging for a kid who can’t talk to strangers even to ask directions), and culminating in taking exams to move on to college (when he realizes he can now “do anything”), we bear witness to Christopher’s growing independence. At the same time, there is a nagging sense that the gap between Christopher and everyone else still exists – he hasn’t achieved independence.  And he won’t.  But he does change, and he manages to change the minds of some around him.  Personally, I like this variation on a (very) common topic.  There are only so many themes in the human story, and this book has inspired me to look for ways to twist them as I write my own stories.

What books have you read that inspire your writing? Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? I’d love to know what you think! 

Creative Nonfiction Review: The Boys in the Boat

indexEvery September, the Maryland Humanities Council hosts One Maryland One Book.  The idea is that all over the state, people read and talk about the same book, which fits into the year’s chosen theme.  This year, the theme was “Sports: the human drama of athletic competition” and the book was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  The Humanities Council provides free, online resources such as discussion guides and lesson plans.  While the Council doesn’t have the funds to give every citizen a free copy of the One Book, many Maryland Library systems buy copies and distribute them to readers who participate in library-run book clubs.  I’m lucky enough to have received a copy of the book from my local library for many years running, and this year was no exception.

But … when I first saw this year’s One Book, I cringed and dreaded opening the cover.

Rowing.  The Depression.  Hitler. Strife.  Eh.

I wasn’t really in the mood for the book.  My life is stressful and hard enough right now, and the last thing I wanted was to read a book about some college boys rowing in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Or so I thought.

Daniel James Brown got my attention right from the start through his first-person introduction to the book.  I felt like a friend or neighbor was taking me into his confidence and relating a story that only he really knew and was going to share with me, personally.  And it worked – I was hooked.

The book details the story of eight oarsmen and the coxswain from The University of Washington as they battle their way to Olympic victory in the 1936 games.  But the story is about more than their gold-medal triumph.  Through Brown’s excellent storytelling, readers get a sense of the atmosphere outside the boat, 1930s America, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and the world around them.  Brown also connects readers further by delving deeper into one story in particular: the story of Joe Rantz, who begins as an outsider from the Dust Bowl with a complicated background.  And as Joe struggles to find his way, the team struggles to find its rhythm.  This crafty technique humanizes the story, makes it real and personal, and one cannot help but feel vested in the outcome.  We know going in that the boys take home gold, but we don’t know the personal details that got them there.  Brown delivers these details in a way that makes you want to turn the pages faster and faster.

The Boys in the Boat is a story about crew, yes.  But it is also a story about life and overcoming our personal hangups to find a way to row smoothly to the finish.  The team and Joe ultimately find their rhythm but only by overcoming the past and opening themselves up to each other.  Any writer interested in creative nonfiction should read this book and take technical notes, and anyone just interested in a good read should pick up a copy and get ready to be drawn into a truly great book.

Have you read it?  What did you think?  I’d love to hear more opinions!